michael therriault and tracy michailidis
photo by john karastamatis
In 1998 Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Alfred Uhry (book) collaborated with celebrated Broadway director Harold Prince on Parade, a Tony Award winning musical based on the controversial conviction of Jewish superintendent Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen year old factory worker Mary Phagan, and his subsequent lynching by a mob of prosperous townsfolk in Atlanta, Georgia. Now Studio 180 and Acting Up Stage Company are presenting the Canadian premiere of this powerful and still strikingly socially relevant piece at the Berkeley Street Theatre (Upstairs) until January 22nd 2011.
Parade tells a complex tale, based on true historical events, surrounding the suspicion of a Jewish pencil factory manager, Leo Frank, originally from Brooklyn, New York, in the rape and murder of a young girl named Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia, described in the musical as “the land time forgot.” Still reeling from the loss of the Civil War fifty years earlier, racial tensions, Anti-Semitism and bitterness toward anything suggesting Yankee prosperity or supremacy ran rampant there at this time. In Parade Uhry and Brown dramatize the accepted opinion of many contemporary historians that this volatile and polarizing atmosphere led to Frank’s unlawful conviction for a murder he did not commit. At the same time, we can see that the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan was set to reassert “Southern justice” on Frank, an outsider, whilst subtly asserting to all of Atlanta that Mary Phagan was the poster child who proved that consorting outside the Caucasian Protestant Georgian way of life posed imminent danger to the welfare and innocence of children. To make matters more complicated, it is widely believed that the true murderer of Phagan was Jim Conley, a black janitor at the factory and the prosecutor’s chief witness against Frank. At first glance this musical seems to be yet another one about the injustices faced by minorities in America’s racially charged past, but this musical goes beyond this one particular case and explores our human propensity to blame others for our own misfortunes and how this alienates us from one another, how our sorrows turn to rage and how quickly violence begets violence in the quest for justice, and of course that old adage about how undoubtedly power corrupts.
Parade is one show that offers definitive proof that musical theatre can be drama, that its characters can be three dimensional, its stories powerful and compelling, dark and political, and that the term “musical theatre actors” is not an oxymoron. Musically, Brown has isolated Leo from the rest of the cast, almost as though they inhabit different shows. The Ensemble sings in a manner that is reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! while Leo belongs in a world closer to How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying or even a precursor to the fragmented, urban work of Stephen Sondheim. This clash is intrinsic to the plot, not only emphasizing that he does not belong to the community he lives in, but also his own resentment toward all things Southern, which he takes out on his wife Lucille, with whom he has a strained relationship. Brown expertly makes beautiful use of sweeping, epic, patriotic and religious ballads saturated with passion, grief and rage for most of the characters, while also constructing his songs for Leo and Lucille to mirror their inability to connect and communicate with one another effectively. Brown also makes brilliant use of powerful, gorgeous, overlapping harmonies in the ensemble singing to represent a chillingly theatrical mob mentality.
Joel Greenberg directs this production in a style that is traditionally more common for plays than musicals, capturing beautifully the rich, moving, rousing component of music, but minimizing its penchant for razzle-dazzle, which works very effectively for this particular show. That being said, I thought the number “Real Big News” could have benefited from more assured choreography and the lynching scene from a more formidable energy. Musical director Paul Sportelli works wonders with his magnificent cast to make sure that every time they sing together the entire theatre erupts in goose bumps.
Ultimately, this production is given life by its incredible ensemble, each one pulsating vividly within these explosive circumstances. Jay Turvey is lush and brassy as the gossip hungry Britt Craig, who spins stories about Frank to propagate the sales of his newspaper. Mark Uhre, with his lovely voice, is disturbing as the righteous right-wing politician Tom Watson. Daren A. Herbert gives a beautifully poignant performance as Newt Lee, the black night watchman who is initially suspected of being Phagan’s murderer, and then returns as the cocksure Conley. Herbert has a magnificent voice and makes “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” (a duet with Alana Hibbert, whose voice is also strong) and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall” two of the biggest musical standouts of the show. Jessica Greenberg is sweet and feisty as Mary Phagan, but I wasn’t convinced that she was a thirteen year old. Gabrielle Jones, as her mother, is absolutely heartbreaking, especially in her song “My Child Will Forgive Me,” Jeff Irving, as Mary’s friend Frankie, is equally as heartbreaking singing “It Don’t Make Sense” and it is incredible to watch this character’s journey through grief to bloodthirsty ire. Tracy Michailidis gives a nuanced and complex performance as Lucille Frank, simultaneously a traditional woman who knows her place, dainty, polite and filled with sweet charm and graces, but also a wife deeply wounded but also bound to her husband by a fierce love despite his shortcomings. Finally, she emerges as a strong, confident and intelligent crusader for justice for him. Michailidis has an endearing chemistry with Michael Therriault’s Leo, and their sweet duet “All The Wasted Time” proves that hope, love and dreams have the ability to transcend hatred. Therriault is simply brilliant as Leo Frank, introverted and methodical, we watch him bloom and melt, for as the threat of the noose tightens around his neck, while imprisoned, he ends up freeing himself of the walls he built up around his heart. There is so much subtext in this performance and it culminates in his shattering rendition of “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.”
It seems strange, perhaps, that a musical about the rape and murder of a child, the lynching of a man who was most likely innocent of any crime, of anti-Semitism and racism should be called “Parade.” This inherent contradiction, murder overlapping with Confederate Memorial Day, the horrific and the celebratory existing simultaneously, is intrinsic to the human experience. The inane and the historic always unite, and therefore there is perhaps no better way to tell such a tale than through musical theatre, a genre often dismissed for being vapid, flashy and superficial. A great many theatre critics, for reasons that I cannot understand, express discomfort and unease with musicals that seek to push the boundaries of the genre into rougher, darker and more complicated waters. I am grateful that we have not one, but two companies (four if you count the two mounting the similarly political, dark and wonderful Assassins) here in Toronto that are dedicated to thought-provoking theatre of exquisite calibre, for they will be the ones to shape the theatre history of tomorrow.
Feel your heart coming alive again, before the Parade passes by.
Parade runs until January 22nd 2011 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley Street) Tuesdays-Sundays. For tickets or more information please call the Box Office at 416.368.3110 or go online to www.paradethemusical.com.
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- Peter Donaldson